“What now Cindy?”
“That damned food critic from The Commercial Appeal. He gave the restaurant a one-star review. That asshole!”
“What’d he write?”
Cindy murmured unintelligibly as she skimmed the newspaper. “The fried chicken was of obvious low quality with generally bland flavor, the collard greens were drenched in oil (and not in a good way), and the sweet potatoes tasted fresh…from the microwave.”
“What the hell! Earl, we don’t even have a microwave in the kitchen!” Cindy huffed in disbelief at the review. She continued reading: “With lack of creativity, low quality ingredients, high prices, and undistinguished service, Cindy’s Cafe is a needless addition to the Memphis meat-and-three scene. The only thing memorable about my experience at Cindy’s Cafe is that I’ll remember to never go back. One star.”
Tears filled Cindy’s eyes as Earl got up from his recliner to try to comfort her.
“It’s just one guy from a newspaper that nobody reads anymore. Everyone goes online now anyway, and you’ve got 4.2 stars on this Yelp website. Who cares about that review?”
“Earl,” Cindy wiped away a tear from her left eye as she placed her readers snug on the top of her short, wavy blonde hair. “We don’t even have a microwave.”
Earl kissed her forehead and embraced her. “It’s ok darlin’. Just forget about it and keep cookin’.” Cindy rolled her eyes and turned around towards the kitchen, her natural inclination.
Cindy had opened the cafe just six months prior, using equity from their home to open the business. After 26 years working as an administrative assistant at the Shelby County Auditor’s Office, and seeing their youngest son graduate from college, it seemed as perfect a time as ever. And business had been relatively good. She was making money, not a lot, but certainly more than breaking even. She was keeping herself busy, running the restaurant every day but Sunday, allocating well deserved time for rest and of course church, where she had taught Sunday School going on two decades.
As Cindy prepared supper for Earl and herself, she couldn’t stop thinking about who the critic might have been. How could she have not seen him? And what would it have mattered anyways? She always treated every customer with respect. Treat ever’one with kindness, her Mama would always say, Ya just ain’t sure who’s a preacher or a lawyer, and ya gonna need one of each at some point in ya life to be ya advocate. What great advice Mama always gave.
“AHHH, God dammit” Blood squirted out the side of her finger. Cindy had stabbed her pointer while chopping onions. So trapped in her own thoughts with this negative review that she wasn’t paying attention.
“Earl, grab me that first aid kit under the damned sink.” Earl was already up and on the move from his recliner. She reached for the rubbing alcohol and poured it over the cut in the sink. White bubbles rapidly fizzled to the edges of the dark velvet blood on her left pointer finger. Earl began bandaging the wound as Cindy looked at the cut, her thoughts drifting back to review. That should be his blood, not mine. Mine is in that café, blood, sweat, tears. Lots of tears. Back breaking hard work. And for him to criticize me like that. How dare him. I could just stab him, watch all the blood drip from his arteries…
“All done darlin',” Earl said, bringing her back to reality. “You know, why don’t we just get takeout. Maybe some Chinese?”
“Ok sounds fine honey, but let’s go pick it up. I don’t want to pay for delivery.”
They got in Earl’s Silverado and as he backed out of the driveway, Cindy looked out the window at the Spanish moss hanging off the sprawling Southern live oak in the front yard. It was a hot, humid August evening, thunderheads bellowing in the distance. In the muggy mist of the dim twilight, she could almost make out the critic’s body hanging from the large limb, swaying back and forth in the still of the summer dusk. Why should I suffer? He should be the one to suffer, nefariously ruining folks’ good reputations like that.
“20 minutes, he said,” Earl told her as he climbed back into the truck. “Wanna take a swing around Walmart while we wait?”
They sauntered aimlessly around the store, nothing specific in mind to buy. As they rounded the corner of the appliance aisle, Cindy’s eyes fell immediately upon the microwaves, sending her back to the review…and the sweet potatoes tasted fresh from the microwave. Her eyes glazed over as her mind drifted back to the cut on her finger. She looked down at the bandage where a small stain of blood and puss and rubbing alcohol had seeped through to the surface, reminiscent of the grease-soaked bottom of a brown paper take out bag at the café.
“Earl, we don’t have a microwave at the café.”
“I know that darlin’, you said that earlier tonight.” Earl let out a slight chuckle.
“Well let’s get one. You know, just in case.”
Earl looked puzzled. “I’m not sure what scenario could require it, but if it makes you happy, I’ll buy it for you.”
They paid for the microwave, grabbed their pizza, headed home, and sat down to watch TV while they ate. Cindy didn’t pay much attention. All she could think about was the review. She decided she’d call the critic first thing in the morning to invite him back. I’ll cook him the best he’s ever had.
“This is Bob Sanderson.”
“Hi Mr. Sanderson! This is Cindy Rainey.”
Silence on the other end.
“From Cindy’s Café.”
“You reviewed my restaurant for your column. We’re a meat-and-three on Highland Road.”
“Oh yes, good morning Ms. Rainey. What can I do for you?”
“Well,” Cindy cleared her throat. “I saw that you weren’t satisfied with your previous visit at my café, so I wanted to personally invite you back to fix you something better to show you that…”
Sanderson cut her off. “That’s fine ma’am. I’d be happy to come back, but I won’t necessarily change my review. Lunch today work for you? About 12:30?”
“Oh yes sir,” Cindy said excitedly. “I know just what I’m cooking! You won’t want to miss it!”
Cindy arrived early to the restaurant, eager to get it opened for lunch. She put the new microwave on the top of the stainless-steel counter and plugged it in and set the time clock according to her watch and got to work preparing fried chicken and catfish.
With only two take out customers in the first hour of business, Cindy knew it would be a slow day. She tidied up the tables, vacuumed just to make sure it was as clean as could be, and then she brewed a pot of coffee and waited for Sanderson to arrive. As the clock on the new microwave read 12:24, a black Cadillac pulled into the parallel parking in front of the storefront. Cindy watched the car rise a few inches as the weight of the man inside released as he got out. A tall, slender man who had been at the restaurant the week before. She remembered that he had ordered two plates of different meats and sides. I want to try a bit of everything, he had said.
Cindy met him at the door.
“Good to see you again! Come on in!” Cindy excitedly said to the man.
“Oh, I’m surprised you remembered me.”
“How could I forget?”
Cindy gulped as she locked the door behind them. Cindy looked down at the bandage on her finger. The dried splotch of blood peaked at her, the cut she gave herself reminding her of his words that cut so deep into her heart.
“What are you cooking today? Sure does smell good.”
“Why don’t you come back to the kitchen? I’d love to show you.”
Cindy led him through the empty, dimly lit restaurant to the kitchen hallway, like a pirate walking the plank. She could feel his footsteps behind her, every single step. His breath drifted down the back of her neck, ready for the final takedown of her pride. Everything she had worked so hard for. Everything she had. Cindy picked up her pace and met the kitchen door at a light jogging speed. She grabbed the butcher knife from the cutting board and whipped around so quickly that her short hair briefly covered her eyes. As her hair settled, her eyes met his as he walked through the archway. She charged forward with the knife and yelped as she slammed the blade sideways in the right side of his neck. He screamed and dropped to his knees. She pulled the knife out and squeaked as she drove the blade back into his neck, twisting it as she pushed deeper into his artery.
His body fell limp to the floor without any sound.
Cindy grabbed the knife again from his neck, blood squirting out of the side of his collar, like the blood from her finger the night before. She immediately began butchering his neck like a rack of baby-back ribs, severing the bones and cartilage, a huge pool of ruby red blood splattered across the floor, blood squirting across the floor of the kitchen with every swing of Cindy’s arm. His head severed from his body and dropped to the floor, briefly rolling before coming to a stop right side up, his headless torso propped against the deep freezer on the wall. The head was still warm as Cindy scooped it up and put it directly into the new microwave, the first item the microwave would have the pleasure of cooking. Cindy hit the quick cook button for 30 seconds. As the turntable came into view, Cindy’s cold, raged eyes met the dead gaze of the man’s head as his skin began to melt off his skull.
“Still taste fresh from the microwave, asshole?” Cindy let out a low mellow chuckle as she watched Sanderson’s head melt and turn.
Knock, knock, knock. Startled, Cindy looked out the service window of the kitchen that overlooked the small bistro. A short man stood in the early afternoon light, his shadow silhouetted by the dimmed café lights, his hands cupped his eyes as he looked inside the restaurant from the glass door. Cindy recognized him as a diner from the week before. The man shouted through the locked door.
“Cindy? It’s Bob Sanderson.”